“A decade ago, 30% of new plays produced in UK theatres were written by women. In 2013, it was 31%. The only way to change (this inequality) is to make those running our theatres see issues of gender and diversity not as a problem of those who are under-represented, but a reflection of their own working practices and the structures of their organisations. Only by changing those practices and structures will long-term change come about. Otherwise in 10 years’ time nothing will have really changed. Again.” – Lyn Gardner, Guardian April 2015
I tweeted this article earlier in the year from the Moonfish account, so proud to be working with such a dynamic company, run by women willing to take risks. I found myself musing that women can’t possibly continue to be ignored in this way, not while we’re working so hard to create great theatre. However the recent announcement that the Waking The Nation programme from The Abbey features only 1 female playwright would suggest Lyn Gardner might not be too far off the mark.
Sadly this announcement didn’t surprise me or the rest of the Moonfish ladies one bit. A decade ago, or as Lyn Gardner notes, a time when only 30% of plays produced in the UK were written by women, Ionia, Mairead and myself were putting together Moonfish’s first play. Frustrated by the lack of good roles out there for women, we knew we’d have to set up our own company and write the material ourselves. Roles where we could play more than merely the female appendage for the male protagonist.
I’m not saying that women only want to see plays by women or with all-female casts, but to suggest that all that’s worthy of being staged at the Irish national theatre is written by men is deliberately short-sighted and sexist. Research recently conducted by Dr Brenda Donohue on the last 320 plays staged at The Abbey revealed that just 36 of these were written by a woman.
In reaction to the Waking The Nation announcement, designer Lian Bell has rallied an admirable army of articulates, prepared to raise their voices for equality. She has kick-started a discussion not just about gender, but access to theatre and opportunities. This response has been wonderful to see and has led me to have a think about what a national theatre really means to the Irish as a nation.
Moonfish co-founder Ionia added her voice to the discussion on Twitter: “As a woman, as someone living outside of Dublin, as a Gaeilgeoir, – the Abbey simply ignores my existence.” Ionia goes on to point out that a trip to see something playing at the Abbey would cost her in the region of 75 euro, but she still considers herself lucky to have access to public transport in order to get herself there “Imagine someone living in Bellmullet trying to get to see a show at the Abbey.”
Of course the problem is bigger than one person or one organisation. This inequality is embedded in theatre in Ireland and the UK too. It is woven so deeply into the fabric of our art that most of us are too tired, too accustomed to being side-lined and too flipping annoyed to lift our voices or stamp our feet at these “old boys club” institutions shutting us out. So we make our own theatre instead, with a fraction of the funding and therefore fewer opportunities to share our work with a wider audience.
The national theatre of Ireland should be an expression of its people. ALL of its people. Regardless of your gender, race, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, where you were born or how much money was in your parents’ bank account at the time. A national theatre must strive at all times to bring equality to all levels of society. A national theatre must take risks, must challenge, all the time! Challenge its audience and above all challenge itself. The option to have the honour to have contributed to the canon of work from an institution such as The Abbey should be equally open to all, as should the opportunity to actually see the work. If a theatre of the people is going to be as well-funded as The Abbey, surely it should strive to ensure that as many people to see the work as possible.
So much has been said on this topic in the past week, I feel I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said already, however I can give my perspective as someone from the UK. I have been lucky enough to see the work of the National Theatre of Scotland in a Fife community centre, a Glasgow tower block, and an aircraft hangar in the Highlands amongst other places. My relatives in Scotland make regular trips to see the work of UK’s National Theatre, broadcast to cinema screens across the country, for a tenner. The National Theatre’s Travelex tickets scheme enables me on my theatre wages to walk through its doors for £15 and at any time it’s odds on that the play I’ll see will have been written by a woman. Being born outside of Ireland I can avoid the malaise of familiarity when it comes to certain Irish issues. Look at how the law in Ireland has treated women in Ireland in the last century. The legal standpoint on our bodies, our right to work, our reproductive systems. Things have only changed when we have fought them and fought hard. If we don’t fight, if people don’t speak up, nothing gets done.
There’s so much theatre being made in Ireland outside the closed doors of the Abbey, without the Abbey’s funding and its plethora of staff. Surely they can afford to make the effort to throw down the welcome mat to a more diverse pool of talent from all walks of life, from all over Ireland from (shock horror) both genders. Let the discussion continue and lead to change. The last week has shown quite clearly that we’re ready for it.
Dr Donohue ends her recent letter to the Irish Times arguing that “a stage that presents 11 per cent of its writing by women does not accurately represent the wealth of Irish people’s experiences. We are only getting half the story.” I couldn’t agree more.